Virtual Lion Kings & Drone Races
Note: This is an excerpt from Beyond Mobile: Life After Smartphones, the book I am writing with Robert Scoble. This is an excerpt from our chapter on entertainment and VR. It is a pre-edited version. We are looking for feedback. Please help us to write a better book.
Entertainment and technology keep changing the possibilities for how stories can be told. Here’s one about a movie you have probably seen, that became a play you possibly saw, and now is producing a VR excerpt that you really should see.
The Lion King, a Disney production that opened on Broadway in 2006, is based on the 1994 movie. It uses humans to replace the original animated characters, and now Circle of Life, the famous opening segment, is being converted into a VR property.
Disney contracted Total Cinema 360, a VR software and filmmaking studio, to produce Circle in the Minskoff Theater where the live play was continuing into its tenth year to capture the energy of a live performance even as it was being enhanced into a new experience. In the VR-enhanced format, viewers will experience Circle from the perspective of orchestra seats, center stage, backstage and from the wings.
Andrew Flatt, Disney’s senior VP of marketing, told the LA Times that he sees the new property as an experiment that could benefit other Broadway plays. The VR version can become a new form of trailer, where people get a sense of the full thrill of the live production and will thus want to attend. Our guess is that smart marketers will find ways to adapt VR trailers to all sorts of live events in a whole new way.
It turns out Disney may be the largest corporate investor in VR and is using this new technology on multiple fronts. It is the lead investor in a $65 million round for Jaunt, a high-profile VR cinema startup, that has produced clips for ABC News and pro tennis matches for ESPN.
Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), the division whose slogan is “We make the magic,” has developed proprietary VR technology to build everything that Disney builds in VR, particularly hotels and theme parks.
WDI has developed facilities in the back lot at Florida’s Epcot Center and similar facilities at Glendale, Calif. where they are creating high definition VR properties.
Mark Mine, founder and director of the Creative Technology Studio (CTS), part of WDI in Glendale California, told Fortune the 4K technology allows teams in the Florida and California studios to perfectly synch computer graphics so that the two teams, separated by over 3000 miles, can analyze and understand designs in precisely the same way at precisely the same time.
The studio is using VR in the same way as designers and architects do to save significant money by building virtual models. It has distinct advantages over the old physical models because they let designers see what guests would actually experience before a hotel room or park attraction is actually built.
In a massive undertaking, WDI is using VR to design the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disneyland scheduled to open in summer 2016. Also in the works is Avatar Land for Orlando, Iron Man Experience for a new Hong Kong Disneyland, and Star Wars for multiple properties.
Universal Studios, the #2 theme park developer, has set up VR attractions based at its parks for such major amusements as Harry Potter, Transformers and Iron Man. By the time you read this, Universal probably will have fixed a latency problem causing some visitors on the Hollywood Harry Potter ride to vomit.
Theme parks with lower budgets are also coming in to VR, but in more modest ways. Six Flags Magic Mountain has added VR headsets to the roller coaster where passengers will now travel through Superman’s Metropolis while the man of steel saves the city from 3D bad guys.
The Void Enters
Then, there are VR theme parks being started from scratch and aspiring to compete, to some minor degree, by creating facilities at low cost in short periods of times with more thrills generated through headsets.
That brings us to The Void, the first native-VR theme park.
Curtis Hickman, co-founder and creative director, described the new theme park as a “vision of infinite dimensions” when he previewed it at the TED conference in Vancouver in January 2016.
Voids will be built in urban warehouses, large enough to set up eight 30-foot square areas, much like the McDonald SXSW pavilion that we told you about. Unlike the child friendly spray-painted butterflies, these are designed to be more thrilling and profoundly scarier.
Each area will be a self-contained attraction lasting 30 minutes and costing $35. One will be a Mayan Temple that suddenly spews flames and visitors feel the heat. In another experience-seekers will have the simple task of saving the world from an alien spacecraft.
Each attraction is designed for two players to go through at a time. We assume technology will allow more players down the line, enhancing both visitor experiences and park revenues.
No matter how many players work together, the experience will remain solipsistic: each will be the center of their own stories, everyone is their own hero.
Thrill seekers are fitted with haptic vests equipped with 22 sensors. They let players feel the heat of fire-breathing monsters, the damp of caves and the wetness of the ocean floor. Haptic is very important to all enhanced realty technologies because it adds a sense of touch to personal experiences.
A Drone at the Races
VR has also enabled at least one new form of spectator sport. Perhaps you have heard about drone racing? Players race unmanned drones at speeds up to 200 mph. They zoom over, around and through obstacles set up in athletic stadiums and shopping malls.
Human pilots, sitting safely on the ground, use remote controls and HMDs to pilot the drones. The VR software gives them a first-person view (FPV). The FPVs create a sensation for the operators that they are sitting atop their drones, as they whiz through obstacles while navigating dangerously close to competing contestants.
Will this become the equivalent of Formula One racing for Millennials and Minecrafters? It is too soon to tell, but sooner or later, event attendees will be able to enjoy the same FPVs that make it so exciting to drivers.
Crashes are far more frequent than in race car competition. When they do occur, the debris is comprised mostly of splintered plastic, devoid of the blood and bone that is sometimes the result of an Indy 500 crash. We’d like to think this, along with the environmental benefits, will be a crowd pleaser.
While this is not yet a ready-for-prime-time sport, there is clearly a grassroots drone movement that is gaining in interest and investment. Steve Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins has ponied up $1 million for hosting drone races at Sun Life Stadium, home of his football team.
Drone racing may or may not make it into the level of a major sport. It is too soon to say. We include it here because it is indicative that VR is going to create new destination activities that will be enjoyed in ways that are different from anything we have today.
Big Numbers. Big Future.
When you look at the numbers of the games we talked about in the previous chapters and those we have discussed here, it forces one to step back and think, very, very big.
According to Business Insider, just VR headsets will grow from a $37 million dollar industry in 2015 to $2.8 billion in 2020—an increase of 99 percent. Goldman Sachs predicts all categories of VR including software will reach $110 billion by 2020, making the category bigger than the TV industry in its first five years. Taking a more conservative view, TrendForce, a market intelligence researcher, predicts VR will grow to $70 billion in 2020.
These are very big numbers for a short span in a nascent market. It goes to show you that many people are willing to risk investments and careers on better ways to tell stories. Personally, we think they are making smart bets.
The immediate perceived value is that better storytelling will touch the core of who we humans are. Probably in that same genomic strain is a tendency to become addicted to fun experiences. One should never underestimate the value of fun.
On a larger level, VR used in the ways we are talking about will change culture.
We don’t know about the return on investment to that, but we are certain it changes the nature of who we are.
That of course is bigger than just VR. Virtual Reality is but an opening act to a much bigger story. Turn this page to get to the Main Attraction.